This Mom Started Her Own Shoe Company, Now it Helps Toddlers With Disabilities

In 2004, Cause Haun was a mom on a mission. In search of a shoe that combined cutting edge style and quality design for her son’s growing little feet, she came up empty. So, like any devoted, entrepreneur-minded American mom, she decided to do something about it. She started her own shoe company and named it See Kai Run after her toddler son, Kai.

When Haun approached independent business owners in Seattle about her idea for a flexible-soled shoe for babies learning to walk, they assured her their customers would welcome such a product. At that time, doctors were advocating the idea that barefoot was best for developing babies. But, other than booties, there was no flexible, soft-soled shoe on the market that little ones learning to walk could wear outdoors.

Haun, a college graduate with a degree in international business, worked with nonprofit groups that organize international student exchanges when she and her co-founder and husband, Chen Gang, started See Kai Run. In the beginning, the family business relied solely on word of mouth for advertising and sold in local boutiques. Haun credits the company’s success, in large part, to the lessons learned through working with family and close friends.

The company’s rapid growth was completely organic. Now owned by Fundamental Capital, See Kai Run’s current distribution includes North America, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Taiwan, Israel, Panama and China. It’s fairly obvious that their designs became a favorite not just of American moms, but also of moms around the world — and perhaps most importantly, the favorite of moms who have children with disabilities.

One such mom from Chicago discovered See Kai Run in 2014 when a nonprofit organization called Peach’s Neet Feetpresented her daughter Tinley with a pair of hand-painted See Kai Run shoes made especially for her. Tinley was born with Apert Syndrome, a disorder that causes deformity of the skull, face, hands and feet, which can make finding a good pair of shoes a significant challenge.

“Sometimes children with Apert Syndrome have difficulty wearing just any shoe,” Tinley’s mom, Sarah Britton, told Opportunity Lives. “Their toes are fused and some have surgery making it very difficult to fit into regular shoes.”

But the parents did their research, she explained, and found that because their shoes are made with such a generous toe box for extra wiggle room, the See Kai Run brand was absolutely perfect for children with Apert Syndrome. Before long, a partnership was born.

While Haun’s original mission was to develop happy, healthy feet, her dream quickly grew and See Kai Run began partnering with multiple charities, foundations and pay-it-forward organizations like Soles4Souls. Today, the mission of See Kai Run isn’t just to meet the needs of their toddler clientele by providing quality stylish shoes for their growing feet; it has expanded in an effort to also develop happy, healthy children. In that effort, the See Kai Run Superstar program was created to honor children with special needs for their courage and character, and little Tinley Britton became their very first of 10 Superstars.

“We thought that by creating our Superstar program we could help bring awareness to the challenges these [children] face, and acceptance by showing they are really just like other kids,” See Kai Run spokesman Steve Hart told Opportunity Lives.

Both See Kai Run and Peach’s Neet Feet are making a real effort to encourage awareness and acceptance of children who face challenges due to disability or serious illness. Through creating custom hand painted works of art for them, Peach’s Neet Feet has had a hand in connecting people from all walks of life who would’ve probably never otherwise met.

“Today, what began as a love of art and giving has grown into a movement of kindness,” explains the nonprofit’s website. “The only thing that PNF asks for in return is that the children and their families pay it forward and “Hustle Kindness” themselves.” And, as usual, See Kai Run met the challenge.

While See Kai Run has been providing shoes for Peach’s Neet Feet since 2014, the company decided to team with the nonprofit in a larger way this year with a new line of shoes called See Kai Run Superstars. Ten percent of the proceeds from the sale of these select styles marked with the “Hustle Kindness” logo will go directly to Peach’s Neet Feet.

It only seems fitting that they’ve named the “Hustle Kindness” line after their brave little Superstars, who exhibit a great deal of courage as they set a very high standard by hustling kindness themselves. Superstar Tinley Britton is as proud as a little girl can possibly be of her “Tinley shoes,” and according to her mom, tells everyone about them wherever she goes.

Cause Haun has proven that a mom on a mission can never be underestimated. She saw a need, worked tirelessly to meet that need and in doing so founded an incredible company that is making a difference in the lives of children all over the world — not just with a cutting-edge product, but by encouraging kids to be healthy and happy.

This article was written by me and published by Opportunity Lives on March 15, 2016. Photos: See Kai Run, Facebook

This Father and Son’s Car Wash Isn’t Just Detailing Cars – It’s Enriching Lives

When you take your car to the Rising Tide Car Wash in Parkland, Florida, you will no doubt be greeted with enthusiasm by a top of the line, hard working team that absolutely loves providing you with a second to none product that far exceeds that of its local competitors.

A shining example of teamwork and commitment, some team members happily drive an hour and a half to get to work each day. It’s not at all unusual for someone to arrive an hour early for his shift, just in case he’s needed. You’d never guess that 80 percent of Rising Tide Car Wash’s exceptional team of employees are autistic — it’s something the growing business proudly considers its key competitive advantage.

In May 2011, John D’Eri found himself at a crossroads. His eighteen-year-old autistic son Andrew would soon age out of the school system, and needed a job.

His son Thomas, who had just graduated summa cum laude with honors from Bentley University with a degree in finance and sustainability, was looking for a job. A life-long entrepreneur with a background in accounting, and a primary business that involved litigation support, software development and electronic data discovery, John decided it was time to sell his current business and begin researching ideas for a startup that would best fit Andrew’s needs. Tom was soon inspired to follow in his father’s entrepreneurial footsteps and approached his dad with the idea of joining forces.

Together, the pair was determined to do everything possible to ensure that Andrew not become one of the many young people who age out of the system and join the more than 90 percent on the autism spectrum who are unemployed, marginalized, and generally left to live a very lonely, unproductive life. They had to find something that wouldn’t just provide him with the perfect job, but would impact him, and hopefully others like him, in every area of his life.

“The concept was to create an organization that was scalable, replicable, profitable, and sustainable,” John D’Eri told Opportunity Lives. “Not a nonprofit, and one where we could create a large community of like minded people — those on the [autism] spectrum.”

Because this was new territory, D’Eri explained, they enlisted the help of a corporate disability consultant and shared their desire “to impact the autism-centric employment issue from a business standpoint rather than a non-profit or charity standpoint.” Instead of creating a business where people come because they feel sorry for the individuals working there, they wanted to create an environment where Andrew and other members of the autism community would feel empowered.

“We are all defined by what we do every day,” explained D’Eri. “We are what we do. You’d be surprised how valuable it is for everyone, even someone with a social disconnect, to feel good about themselves when they’re productive. That, in itself, leads to a serious level of empowerment.”

For several months, the pair researched a variety of businesses and in August 2011, D’Eri came up with the idea of a car wash. Since neither had experience in that industry, they aligned with Sonny’s Direct, the world leader in car wash manufacturing. The father/son team explained their concept and the consultant, unsure the idea would be successful, instructed his team to give the pair everything they needed to test their idea and see if it was even possible.

Concerned that he had not set himself — or those within the autism community — up for failure, D’Eri and his team of consultants (including job coaches) created a test and set up an after-care process for their test employees at Sonny’s car wash in Homestead, Florida during the summer of 2012. “The test created a structured work environment out of the car wash back end business,” D’Eri told Opportunity Lives. “In other words, we broke the car wash process down into forty six steps. Those forty six steps, done in a row successfully on a car, would produce a good car on a car wash back end.”

The series of tests began when they hired the four individuals for the first two weeks, then seventeen for the second two. They carefully watched, filmed and documented all data to better help all involved gain an exact assessment of what was unfolding. Each employee was required to, as part of a team, complete all 46 steps three times in a row with 100 percent accuracy under six minutes, servicing customers who had no idea they had autism.

The consultants, Sonny’s, and anyone else involved couldn’t believe the results. “I was amazed at the capability. I was floored,” D’Eri said. “In fact, I was worried that people wouldn’t even believe they had autism…that’s how good these guys were!” He explained that the 46-step process the test employees went through with such precision was far from easy.

“I was seeing employees that, based on my experience… I love ’em! They were doing exactly what I told them to do, no back talk, no nonsense, and I was like ‘this is awesome!’” said D’Eri. He explained that during the last phase of testing, they wore uniforms and the public was given the opportunity to tip, which turned out to be an incredible, unexpected motivator.

Obviously, at that point John and Tom D’Eri knew without a doubt that the idea would work, and so began the search for a car wash for sale. Not normally an easy task, they soon located one in Parkland, Florida, just down the road from another thriving car wash chain, and made the purchase. They closed its doors, something that is unheard of mid-season, and re-opened four months later in April 2013 with 25 employees and a brand new product.

For six months, with a deep desire to let employees earn respect for their hard work rather than sympathy because of a disability, they deflected every bit of media they could, and earn respect they did. Within six short months, they had broken even. When they purchased the car wash, it was servicing 3,000 cars a month, on average. Today, they’re servicing in excess of 18,000 cars a month and will soon break ground on a new location 4.6 miles down the road. With the creation of Rising Tide U, John and Tom D’Eri have graciously begun teaching others how to take what they’ve learned and create other successful businesses that employ individuals with disabilities.

To the average motorist, Rising Tide Car Wash may look like just another car wash, but to the customers who have come to know and love its employees, it’s anything but ordinary. It’s not just a lifeline for the employees who work so hard to provide excellent service day in and day out, but a business whose employees have become an inspiration to everyone they meet.

This article was written by me and published by Opportunity Lives on March 29, 2016. Photo credit: Rising Tide Car Wash, Facebook

Changing the Lives of Special Needs Kids Worldwide, One Conversation at a Time

In classrooms all over America, teachers begin the school day with a routine. A “good morning,” a quick rundown of the class roster, a collection of yesterday’s homework and, for younger grades, maybe a fun, interactive song to start the day.

For Chris Ulmer’s special-needs class, the first 10 minutes of each day begin a bit differently.

“You, sir, are an amazing student,” exclaimed “Mr. Chris” to one of his special-needs students as they began the school day one particular morning. “You’re very funny, you’re very smart, you do a great job every day, and you make everyone laugh because you are so silly. Thanks for being a great student,” he finished, as he high-fived the young boy and sent him to his seat.

Ulmer repeated the action as he did each morning with every student in his class, encouraging, affirming and loving them. Each student walked back to his seat with a smile as big as Texas and, no doubt, much-needed courage to face the challenges of the day.

Ulmer, 27, began his college education at Penn State University, where he earned a BA with a specialty in media effects. He received a full scholarship to University of the Cumberlands, where he coached the men’s soccer team and earned a master’s degree in teaching with a specialty in special education. A self-described “beach bum” in his off time, Ulmer says he doesn’t exactly fit the traditional teacher mold, which works to his advantage and — he believes — has contributed to his success.

Not long after Ulmer began teaching at Mainstream Academy in Jacksonville, Florida, he recognized a significant disconnect between his students and the rest of society, and it concerned him. He began to fear that the isolation so many individuals within the special-needs community experience would limit his students and prevent them from reaching the potential he knows they possess. In early 2015, he decided to do something about it. Armed with little more than a broken camera phone and a computer in great need of repair, he launched “Special Books for Special Kids,” (SBSK) a project designed to give a voice to special needs individuals of all ages, races, diagnoses and social classes.

SBSK is now officially a 501c3 nonprofit organization, but it was first started as a potential book series. Although that part of the project is ongoing (stay tuned), Ulmer didn’t let the 50 rejection letters he received from publishers stop him. He joined Facebook and YouTube, started blogging and posting videos of interviews with his students and others within the special-needs community, giving the world just a tiny glimpse into the minds of some pretty incredible people.

Interest in Ulmer’s work skyrocketed in November, after the video of him complimenting his students one morning went viral. Since then, SBSK has expanded its reach to more than 85 countries, has grown to nearly 500,000 followers on Facebook and routinely attracts more than 1 million views of its videos.

Katherine, one young lady SBSK recently interviewed, expressed her great desire to be independent. She told “Mr. Chris” about her dream of one day getting a job and beginning to save for a home of her own, but because of a neurological disorder called speech apraxia, she feared she’d never have that opportunity. After meeting her and finding out where she’d like to work, Ulmer contacted the owner of the company, and explained how her disorder would in no way would limit her from doing the job expected of her. A couple of months later, Katherine reported that she had overcome her “self-doubt” and landed the job she wanted so badly.

 

A man named Joe recently told his story to the SBSK family. Now an older adult, Joe lived a life of great adversity, struggling all the way through his school years, and finding it nearly impossible to hold down a job once he entered the workforce. Doctors had previously diagnosed him as schizophrenic and bipolar. At 46, Joe was given a brain scan for something completely unrelated to his former diagnosis, and doctors discovered he was missing a large portion of his brain called the corpus callosum — the part of the brain that allows for communication between the left and right hemispheres. During the interview, Ulmer gives Joe the opportunity to tell his story, talk about the hardships he has experienced in his life, the relief he felt when he finally had a true diagnosis, and even gives him the opportunity to reach out via social media and meet new friends within the SBSK community.

Watching the students’ stories and seeing Ulmer interact with each of them certainly goes a long way in achieving the goal he set out to accomplish when he founded SBSK a year ago.

“It is extremely rewarding to get to do this work and to meet these incredible individuals and their families,” Ulmer told Opportunity Lives. “We look forward to the continued evolution of SBSK as a non-profit.”

Ulmer left the classroom at the end of the school year to take on the responsibilities of SBSK full time. He’s joined by Alyssa Porter, who serves as the nonprofit’s executive director. The two began a road trip earlier this week that will give them the opportunity to travel through Florida, their home state, before heading up the Eastern Seaboard and into Canada, meeting and interviewing lots of friends within the special-needs community.

Later this year, Ulmer and Porter will tour Australia in the hope that their work will continue to expend worldwide, giving them more opportunities to meet and interact with the people they serve so passionately.

“It is our mission to lead a global acceptance movement,” Ulmer said of his team, “and with the support of the SBSK family, we truly believe we can change the world. Together, we will normalize the diversity of the human condition.”

This article was written by me and published by Opportunity Lives on June 20, 2016. 

In a Country Ravaged by Human Trafficking, This Company Offers the Resident’s Hope

Do a quick Google search on the republic of Nepal, and you’ll quickly learn that it’s a country known for more than just the Earth’s tallest mountain peak and its breathtaking landscape. Nepal is a nation living in deep despair, not only because of the 2015 earthquake that killed more than 8,000 people and injured more than 21,000, but also because of the human trafficking industry that is flourishing within its borders.

Tanja Cesh first visited the region in 2005 and again in 2008 with Sudara, the human trafficking rescue group. Sudara CEO Shannon Keith invited Cesh to go to India to “lend her expertise on some design-related issues.” During her second visit, the team visited one of the Sudara sewing centers near Mumbai and met a group of seamstresses who had been rescued. Cesh learned that many women and girls are trafficked into India from Nepal, a startling fact that immediately began to tug at her heartstrings.

“That was my first exposure to human trafficking, and it’s certainly not easily forgotten once your heart is broken by it,” Cesh told Opportunity Lives. She’s not sure why that particular fact stuck with her. “Nepal has a bit of Himalayan mystique to it. Perhaps that is why it always…beckoned. After each trip I would return to my American life with a bigger burn in my heart and mind regarding the issue of modern day slavery. I simply couldn’t ignore it.”

A graphic designer by trade and an art director in the fashion industry at the time, Cesh says she hit a wall with her career in 2010. “I was in a particularly fast-paced job, which was sort of sucking my creative and spiritual soul dry,” she explained. Her passion for the issue of human trafficking and her desire to create a sustainable solution continued to grow, so she made the decision to quit her job and take a sabbatical. She traveled Southeast Asia for four months. The first half of her journey took her to India and Bangladesh during monsoon season, where she spent time visiting organizations and businesses fully immersed in solving the problem of human trafficking.

“The solutions I was most drawn to were, of course, creative businesses with a focus on vocational training,” Cesh said. She continued traveling, overwhelmed by what she witnessed.

Then she arrived in Nepal.

“Nepal was a place that took me in,” Cesh said. “While the issues are no different there, there was something about being in the shadows of the Himalayas that comforted me. I met incredible people in Nepal. I don’t know, sometimes I think Nepal picked me.” She says she fell in love with the village focus there. She says it felt much like a “lost kingdom.”

But that atmosphere, as wonderful as it is, doesn’t easily mask the underlying issues the people of Nepal face.

”It’s an incredibly treacherous country with the most volatile political climate and horrible human rights offenses,” Cesh said, explaining that the Nepalese government offers little to its people, and its people expect nothing from their government. A hard-working people who take care of each other, they know that if change is going to happen, it will be of their own making.

With an unemployment rate of nearly 50 percent, the people of Nepal are desperate for work. Half of the approximately 28 million people live in poverty with little hope of ever having a better life. Due to a lack of education, many are forced to work low-paying jobs.

“It’s what makes Nepal incredibly vulnerable to foreign traffickers,” Cesh explained.

Given her creative background, it’s no surprise that Cesh was also amazed by the incredible artisanship she witnessed during her visit. She left with all kinds of ideas for things that could be made with the raw materials she found in the markets there.

“I was smitten by the curious alleys full of trinkets and market-ware,” Cesh told Sudara. She built lasting relationships during that visit, and met a number of people and organizations that opened her eyes to the solutions she went in search of.

Inspired by the hard working, incredibly creative people of Nepal, Cesh created Mulxiply in 2012.

“Besides education, job creation is the number one path out of poverty. I am not a doctor or a humanitarian, I am an artist,” Cesh said. “All of us, no matter what skill set we have, can play a part in making our world a better place.”

Mulxiply — pronounced “multiply” — is a name she chose to represent the “multiply effect:” your purchase of their product equals an employment opportunity for the people of Nepal. The Portland, Maine based company offers gorgeous hand crafted products “inspired on the shores of Maine and the foothills of the Himalayas.” Each piece is carefully handcrafted “collaboratively with artisans in Nepal.” The company wisely partners with four groups of artisans and indigenous organizations in Nepal who, they say, “know the plight of their own people far more than we ever will.”

At the beginning, the goal of Mulxiply was to employ as many Nepali women as possible, to give them a hand up out of poverty and decrease the risks they face. With time, however, they learned that there is another pressing need.

“There is another form of slavery that is happening in Nepal (and in many poor countries),” Cesh told Sudara. In recent years, millions of Nepalese men have been deceived by manpower companies into taking what they believe to be good construction jobs, only to end up forced into indentured servitude. Many never return, except to be buried, and according to Cesh, the effects have been devastating — many villages have lost nearly all of their younger men, which place the women and girls at even greater risk.

Because of this, Mulxiply began creating jewelry and other projects that enabled them to employ men who are metal workers, as well.

“Mulxiply is a design-focused solution that has two end goals: creating long-term dignified jobs in Nepal, and educating the western consumer on the fact that how we spend our dollars matters,” Cesh said. Her goal is to motivate others to be conscious consumers who thoughtfully spend their hard earned dollars by supporting companies like hers, as well as Sudara, Raven + Lily, Soko and others “that are interrupting poverty in a beautiful, redemptive way.”

Because of Tanja Cesh and Mulxiply, countless men and women in Nepal have been spared a life of great hardship.

“Redemption is my favorite thing in this life. It’s where we see ‘the why’ of suffering. We see the beauty that comes from ashes,” Cesh said. “Seeing people create unique items with their hands — they are giving something to the world that no one else can. Each piece somehow has their fingerprint on it. So, for people that were told they had no value or that the only thing they are good for is their body or back-breaking labor — dignified, creative work is completely redemptive and life-giving. It’s a solution that can work.”

This article was written by me and published by Opportunity Lives on August 15, 2016. Photo credit: Mulxiply

In the “Purpose Hotel”, You Can Change The World While You Sleep

My daughter and I walked the rugged, uneven path back toward camp in complete shock over what we had just seen. I knew the remote village we were visiting in northern Togo had a very limited water supply, but I had no idea that the spot we’d just visited was the only water source available to the small village of Gbentchal during rainy season. This overflowing mud hole was no bigger than a small pond — a pond that would dry up soon, forcing the village women to walk another 15 kilometers daily just for water.

That day, the “water” was muddy and green and not something I could ever imagine thousands of human beings actually drinking. During our visit, a woman from the village approached carrying two “jerry cans” that weigh more than forty pounds once filled. She first washed a few items of clothing, careful not to drop the baby she had strapped to her back, and then began to fill her water cans. As she did, two cows entered the watering hole behind her to cool off and drink.

I’d heard stories about places like this all my life, but seeing it first hand is hard to describe. It changes you. During our stay, we also witnessed the amazing results of what a child sponsorship program can provide a village that previously had no school, no medical clinic, no place of worship and not a single clean water well. Every day around noon, we watched as hundreds of children not yet sponsored fought each other to catch just a glimpse of their sponsored peers, who sat inside the recently built Hope Center eating lunch and enjoying a cup of clean well water.

What if, when you travel, you could stay in a hotel that would sponsor a child like one of these, providing that child with food, medical care, an education and clean water to drink? What if paying the extra fee for the high speed internet helped battle human trafficking? What if the soap, the shampoo, the linens you sleep on and the art you enjoy was all made by people in far away places who work for partners that are making a real difference in the world by giving them a hand up out of poverty? What if, by choosing this particular hotel, you could literally change hundreds of lives with a single night’s stay? Would you do it? 

World-renowned photographer Jeremy Cowart, the mastermind behind “The Purpose Hotel” Kickstarter project, certainly hopes you will.

The idea came to Cowart in 2012, when he stayed the night in an L.A.-based hotel and noticed a room number plaque that read “Hello, my name is 121.” He began to imagine a hotel chain in which every room tells a story, and every story has a name and every stay there has a purpose and the results reach far beyond what the average person alone could do.

“I’ve traveled the world for the past decade as a photographer,” says Cowart, “and every time I stay at a hotel, I can’t help but think, ‘What if everything in this hotel was connected to a cause or a need? Could a simple shift like that change the world?’”

Cowart asks would-be backers to imagine booking a night not in just any hotel, but a global chain of “Purpose” hotels, where every time you book a room you sponsor a child, fight human trafficking and use products purchased from partners who are making a difference.

 

“In the lobby,” Cowart continues, “a clean water well symbolizes the flow of hope and life to everyone and everything connected to the hotel. By choosing this hotel, you [would] touch a hundred lives or more, locally and internationally. You [could] literally change the world in your sleep.” He hopes his Kickstarter will give the project the funds they need to begin the first year of what will likely be a two to three year studio phase until a finished product appears, with the first hotel located in his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee.

Cowart is no stranger to changing lives. He frequently uses the gift of photography to give to the less fortunate and encourages photographers worldwide to follow in his footsteps.

“Don’t just aim for greatness,” he tells them. “Aim to use greatness to serve a greater purpose.”

In 2010, he launched the “Voices of Haiti” project after a massive earthquake left the country devastated. Instead of just going to the impoverished island and taking photos of the destruction, Cowart felt he had to do more. He wanted to reach out to the Haitian people who were living through this devastation, so he took art supplies and encouraged them to create their own art and express their feelings as he took photos and video. What happened as he began to document their response was something beautiful.

In 2011, Cowart travelled to Rwanda with filmmaker Laura Waters Hinson to document the stories of those on both sides of the genocide that nearly destroyed the country. The series was featured on CNN and is a powerful story of forgiveness in the face of incredible tragedy.

Knowing the value of photography and the impact a simple photograph can have on a life, Cowart teamed with his friend Kyle Chowning in 2008 and started the Help-Portrait project. Since its inception, 73,241 photographers in 67 countries have taken more than 370,000 portraits. The point isn’t really about the taking of the photograph, or about making a single dime from the images. Instead, it’s about giving the gift of photography to people who otherwise could not afford the luxury of having their photo taken or a memory captured. Many have never even seen a reflection of themselves.

Whether it was his painting or his photography, Cowart learned early in life to work hard and keep trying, no matter what. He struggled in school, and failed in pretty much anything he tried to do growing up, but his father instilled in him an “I can do all things through Christ…” attitude and it worked. Today, he’s one of the nation’s most influential photographers, with a clientele list that most photographers only dream of having.

But what Cowart most wants to be remembered for is the mark he leaves on the world. He describes this latest project as something he’s been absolutely terrified of the last three years. “It’s my Mt. Everest…my Goliath,” said Cowart, who took his first step by publishing a video and telling the world about his dream of the Purpose Hotel chain. His second step was to launch the Kickstarter with a goal of raising enough funds to see his dream become a reality.

There’s no doubt, regardless of how, Cowart will climb his Mt. Everest. Claiming Philippians 4:13 as his inspiration, he hopes we’ll all learn that we can “do all things through Christ” and join him in making this dream a reality so that together, we can change the world.

This article was written by me and published by Opportunity Lives on September 14, 2016. Photo credit: Jeremy Cowart, Facebook

From Nurse to Seamstress to Author, This Mom Is Now Passing Her Love for Sewing to a New Generation

Meet Penelope. She’s pretty in pink (and white), with a spiffy silver thunderbolt shooting right down her center, and an interior to die for. This 12-foot vintage inspired camper belongs to Australian native Annabel Wrigley, who uses her to hold small sewing parties for kids of all ages when she’s not writing books, designing textiles or teaching students at her Little Pincushion Studio in historic Warrenton, Virginia.

Penelope, named by Wrigley’s creative young students, is just one of the many tools she uses in teaching children the craft she’s grown to love so much. Her passion for creating handmade treasures began very early in life, but it wasn’t until the birth of her son 17 years ago that she actually learned how to sew.

Wrigley followed in her grandmother’s footsteps, earned her degree in nursing and initially began her professional career working as a psychiatric nurse. She loved the job and fully intended to return to work after the birth of her son. But life took a different, very unexpected turn while she was on maternity leave.

When she began shopping for clothing for her baby boy, she had a difficult time finding anything that she liked or could afford. So she stapled together a hat one day and took it to her mother-in-law to sew.

“My mother-in-law is an amazing seamstress,” Wrigley told Opportunity Lives, explaining how she’s known for creating beautiful Christening gowns. Instead of sewing the hat for her, her mother-in-law taught her how to sew it herself. And, as the saying goes, the rest is history.

Friends loved her adorable creations and immediately began placing orders. Word travelled, and soon, she was offering baby hats, baby bibs, appliquéd onesies, diaper bags, quilts, and all things baby in local markets near her home in Sydney, Australia.

Annabel immediately realized she had found the thing that made her happiest — being a mom and making beautiful things. And so, she continued, and her new little business quickly became successful. In fact, she says the business took off almost too quickly, and it got scary. That’s why, when her husband got a job offer that would move them to the United States, it was a welcome adventure and they decided to accept.

“We decided to put the business to rest for a little while,” Wrigley said. “We knew if it was meant to be, I’d come back to it.”

And come back to it she did. Once Wrigley and her husband settled in the United States, life slowed down a bit and the focus became family. She had another baby — a sweet baby girl — and while she still enjoyed making things, it was for herself and her family. She was focused on being a full time mother.

Seven years ago, she got her worker’s permit, and about that same time, she began teaching her daughter how to sew. Once again, friends loved what she was doing and asked if she would teach their daughters. Before long, she had a class full of creative little girls who were eager to learn how to sew. That’s how the Little Pincushion Studio came to be.

The studio first started in Wrigley’s garage, and thanks to the wonderful parents of her students, she’s never had to spend a dime on advertising and has always relied solely on word of mouth.

“In that little garage, I had this little group of devoted students and wonderful parents,” Wrigley said. “I noticed that the girls didn’t want to make the things I thought they were going to make, they could actually do a lot more than I thought they would be able to do. I was learning a lot from teaching them, so I decided that I should do a book.’”

In 2013, the first of three “We Love to Sew” books aimed at girls ages 8-12 was published. From that came her video teaching series for Creativebug, which she says is important to her because so many children learn visually. This gave her an immediate opportunity to reach far beyond her physical classroom.

Wrigley approaches teaching with a patient, relaxed “perfection is for the birds” philosophy, and has a special ability to connect with her students. She holds classes in studio five days a week, and then takes Penelope out on the weekends to host small sewing parties. Every beginner starts by learning to use the sewing machine and earning her “Certificate of Bobbinology,” then students are usually given the opportunity to vote as a class on what project they’d like to create.

“I’m trying to create a space where children who are very over scheduled and stretched to the limit academically these days can come here, learn the basics from me, and then have the freedom to experiment,” Wrigley said. “The project doesn’t have to be perfect, it doesn’t have to be straight — I teach them to sew straight, but it’s not the end of the world if it’s not. There’s this really beautiful age from 7 to 13, where it’s okay to just create and experiment.”

She strongly believes that using this teaching method during a time in their lives when the pressures of school tend to be difficult instills a love for sewing and makes it fun for them rather than adding another thing to the list of demands already placed on them in school.

Wrigley adds extra fun for her students by labeling machine parts with washi tape, taking video of certain portions of the class so they can repeat the procedures at home, and giving unique names like “the groundhog,” “chicken foot,” and “space guy” to boring sewing machine parts so they can be remembered.

It’s clear that Annabel Wrigley has a passion for teaching, and that the fun isn’t reserved just for her young students. Her latest creation, a line of gorgeous Windham fabrics called Maribel, was inspired by some of her favorite childhood memories and can be found at local fabric stores nationwide.

The proof of Wrigley’s hard work and passion for her craft lies in her success at teaching the next generation of seamstresses to find and develop their own creativity. Whether it’s in the classroom, online through her videos, off the page of one of her books, or at a fun birthday party in Penelope, students are able to learn and create because she has taken the time to share her love for making things.

This article was written by me and published by Opportunity Lives on October 14, 2016. Photo credit: Little Pincushion Studio

This Man Turned the ‘Worst Village in Togo’ Into A Community of Hope

One morning in 2010, in a world far removed from the comforts of home and family, David Whetstone woke to the noise of whispers and giggles. When he peeked through the zippered opening of his tent, he saw a crowd of beautiful children. Every one of them that eagerly awaited his emergence, he would later learn, were orphans whose parents died of waterborne illnesses that continually plague this sub-Saharan region of Africa.

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How One U.S. Veteran is Shining the Light on Iraq’s Persecuted Minorities

Most Americans are well aware of the refugee crisis in Syria today. The five-year-old civil war has displaced millions of civilians, nearly half of them children. Just across the border in neighboring Iraq, Daesh — better known to the world as ISIS — is displacing millions and conducting genocide against Christians and Yezidis.

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After Witnessing the Horrors of India’s Sex Trafficking, This Woman Decided to Help the Women in Need

Nearly 21 million people worldwide are victims of human trafficking, according to the International Labor Organization. Of that number, approximately 10 percent are forced into state labor. Of the remaining 18.7 million, nearly three-quarters are trapped in other forms of forced labor. A little over one in four are children and 55 percent are women and girls.

While those statistics boggle the mind, none is quite as heartbreaking as the 22 percent that are forced into sexual exploitation.

Though most Americans believe slavery to be a thing of the past, the harsh reality is it’s a thriving $150 billion a year industry. Modern-day slavery simply exists under a different name and no country is free, especially India.

When Shannon Keith took her second trip to India in 2005, what she witnessed in the red-light districts absolutely broke her heart. Working alongside the women there, she heard story after story firsthand of little girls being sold into slavery by families and orphans snatched off the street by pimps and rented out to the highest bidder. She met young mothers who were just trying to earn enough to feed their hungry children. She also met women who were being held against their will.

All longing for an escape, all desperate to survive, but without any other alternative. This was a life that had been chosen for them. There was little, if any, hope.

After all, they were the untouchables.

1266603_977872542284979_7916521381114917019_o-300x300Though Keith had visited India once before, and witnessed much of the same in Nigeria during another trip, this time was different. Her heart was stirred like never before to do something to help, and a sudden realization crossed her mind — all kinds of help could be given to these women. Ultimately, however, because of the caste system into which they are born, she realized the only thing that would ever give them a true hand up out of their horrific situation would be to provide them with a way to support themselves and their children. Keith knew that a job is what they really needed, and with her background in corporate sales, she immediately knew this was something she just might be able to provide.

Without a single doubt in her mind, Keith immediately began to devise a plan. No market research was needed initially; the decision wasn’t a difficult one to make. India is known for its gorgeous, colorful textiles, so she purchased a bunch of fabric and headed home with an idea in mind. Women’s pajamas and loungewear would be the perfect thing, she thought. Simple to make, and something every woman loves.

Soon after she arrived home, Keith got her girlfriends on board. She purchased some simple patterns, held a sewing party and together, they created a simple design that would be easy enough to teach anyone with the desire to learn how to sew.

Then began the market research. How much would people be willing to pay for a simple, beautiful pair of pajamas? Would American women be compelled to support their sisters in India by purchasing them?

Soon, a nonprofit organization called the International Princess Project was formed, and Shannon Keith became a pioneer of sorts — the very heart and soul of her entire idea centered around employing women from the red-light districts in India who wanted a better life for themselves and their children. In 2005, little was known about the horrors of human trafficking, yet with a heart broken for women who suffer under such bondage, she forged ahead, determined to be successful.

In 2006, International Princess Project — now named Sudara, a word inspired by the Sanskrit word “Sundara,” which means “beautiful” — hired six women in their “first-ever sewing center partnership,” and began teaching them how to sew. Before long, the first pair of “punjammies” was made.

“Stitch by stitch,” says the Sudara website, “the women gained confidence not only in their newfound trade, but also in their newfound hope and freedom.”

Punjammies were a huge hit, and the nonprofit began to thrive over the next nine years — so much so that it soon became evident that something more than a nonprofit was needed. Finally, in 2015, the two entities separated, Keith purchased the side of the business that makes and sells loungewear, formed a B-Corporation and rebranded as Sudara, Inc. The 501(c)3 nonprofit, renamed Sudara Freedom Fund, remains in place and the mission of both remains united: job creation that provides a pathway out of sex slavery for women in India.

Sudara Freedom Fund helps to provide much needed housing, and education for the women who work in the sewing centers, and their families.

C90B6A79-6B61-418C-BCBD-9D64EBEF25E4“The more pants we can sell,” Keith told Opportunity Lives, “the more shirts and robes and bracelets and other accessories that we can sell, the more jobs we can create, and that provides the opportunity for women who would otherwise have to sell their bodies for hire just to feed their family.”

Sudara works closely with trusted, carefully vetted partners in India. The company places very large orders — and pays premium prices.

“We overpay for our products on purpose,” Keith explained. “We pay a premium.” All proceeds go to help the women in India, who are paid an above fair trade wage in the sewing centers.

Because of Sudara, Inc. and the Sudara Freedom Fund, women in India who are suffering under modern day slavery now have a new hope — a way out. They are never forced to work in one of the Sudara sewing centers; they come because they want healing and a new beginning. Because women all over the world have chosen to purchase the beautiful products they are working so hard to make, they are providing for themselves a new life — a life of hope and freedom — and being given a new story to tell.

 

This article was written by me and published by Opportunity Lives on April 14, 2016. Photo credit: Sudara.